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How women dressed 100 years ago

How Women Dressed 100 Years Ago

by Jessica Campbell

What women are wearing is an endless source of fascination. From Hollywood red carpets to the halls of government, people want to know about — and comment on — the fashion choices of women.

When a recent news report noted that President Donald Trump has long preferred his female employees to “dress like women,” countless women took to the internet to show off their diverse professional styles. After seeing so many examples of how to #dresslikeawoman in 2017, it occurred to us to wonder: What were women wearing 100 years ago?

So we did the research. If Twitter and Instagram had been around in 1917, here’s what we might have seen…


Dress like a military officer

First Woman Naval Recruit Loretta Walsh
Getty Images

In March 1917, Loretta Walsh became the very first woman to enlist in the U.S. Navy. She began as chief yeoman (her duties consisted of clerical work) and rose to chief petty officer, the first woman to do so.

Read more about Loretta Walsh

Dress like a bank president


Maggie L. Walker (1864–1934) faced a lot of obstacles to upward mobility. The daughter of a former slave, she was born black and female in the Confederate capital city of Richmond, Virginia, during the Civil War. Her mother worked as a maid and a laundress to support the family.

After working as a teacher, Walker started her own newspaper, the St. Luke Herald, in 1902. The following year, she founded the St. Luke Penny Savings Bank, becoming the first African-American woman to charter a bank and serve as bank president.

In this photo, Walker (left) poses with her bank employees circa 1917.

Read more about Maggie L. Walker

Dress like a bomb maker

Getty Images / IWM / Horace Nicholls

When Great Britain entered World War I in 1914, the demand for weapons and ammunition far outpaced the supply. Meanwhile, much of the workforce was being sent across the English Channel to fight. To meet supply needs, a Ministry of Munitions was formed and soon began to compel factory owners to hire women en masse.

During the war, more than 700,000 women in the U.K. would work in munitions — earning half of what men were paid despite facing the same dangerous conditions.

Here, two female munitions workers stand beside some of the shells produced at National Shell Filling Factory No.6, Chilwell, Nottinghamshire, England, United Kingdom, circa 1917.

The following year, an explosion at Chilwell would kill 130 and injure 400 more, most of them women.

Read more about working in a World War I munitions factory

Dress like a farmhand

Wikimedia Commons

With men away at war, there was much work to be done at home. Early in the war, the United Kingdom’s Board of Agriculture began recruiting women to work on farms doing chores such as milking cows and picking fruit.

By 1917, the Women’s Land Army had 23,000 volunteers or “Land Girls.”

Read more about Land Girls

Dress like a farmer

Imperial War Museum

While thousands of women joined the Women’s Land Army, many more British women — more than 250,000 by 1917 — worked as farm laborers, doing everything from plowing fields to picking crops.

Not to mention all the other women who were already farmers long before the war began.

Read more about women in World War I

Dress like a police officer

Pictured from left: an inspector and a sergeant in the Women's Police Service, U.K. (Getty Images); Georgia Ann Hill Robinson (1879–1961), a Los Angeles police officer who in 1916 became one of the first black women to join the police force in the U.S. (Wikimedia Commons); Leola N. King, a Washington, D.C., officer who was one of first female traffic cops in the U.S. (Wikimedia Commons).
Getty Images and Wikimedia Commons

Though some women had served as police officers prior to World War I, the war brought a surge in recruitment of female officers.

Pictured from left: An inspector and a sergeant in the Women’s Police Service, U.K. (Getty Images); Georgia Ann Hill Robinson (1879–1961), a Los Angeles police officer who in 1916 became one of the first black women to join the police force in the U.S. (Wikimedia Commons); and Leola N. King, a Washington, D.C., officer who was one of first female traffic cops in the U.S. (Wikimedia Commons).

Read more about Georgia Ann Hill Robinson

Dress like a doctor

Dr. Mary Edwards Walker (1832–1919) volunteered as a medical officer during the Civil War
Getty Images

Dr. Mary Edwards Walker (1832–1919) volunteered during the war — the Civil War, that is.

Dr. Walker, who earned her medical degree in 1855, volunteered for the Union Army at the outbreak of the American Civil War and served as a surgeon at a temporary hospital in Washington, D.C. After crossing enemy lines to treat wounded civilians, she was captured by Confederate soldiers, arrested as a spy, and became a prisoner of war.

According to The New York Times, Dr. Walker (pictured here circa 1917) is the only woman to receive the Medal of Honor — and one of only eight civilians to have done so.

Read more about Dr. Mary Edwards Walker

Dress like an Air Force officer

Getty Images / IWM

When the Royal Air Force was founded in 1918, its auxiliary organization, the Women’s Royal Air Force, was founded at the same time. The mission of the WRAF: to staff the airfields with female mechanics, freeing up men to take combat positions. Between 1918 and 1920, roughly 32,000 women would serve as mechanics, as drivers, and in other wartime roles.

In this photo, a WRAF motorcyclist poses on a Clyno motorcycle combination. Though the WRAF was disbanded in 1920, the women who served paved the way for future RAF servicewomen.

Read more about the WRAF

Dress like a journalist

Getty Images / Chicago History Museum

Before Ida B. Wells (1862–1931) co-founded the NAACP, before she was an acclaimed journalist and a passionate and articulate advocate for African-Americans and women, she was held captive in slavery.

Wells was born in Mississippi, one of eight children of enslaved parents. After her parents and a brother died of yellow fever, 16-year-old Wells went to work as a teacher, determined to support her siblings. Keenly aware of inequity, she moved the family to Tennessee because black teachers were paid more there than in Mississippi (where she’d made less than half of what a white teacher earned).

She soon began developing her reputation as a newspaper columnist and civil rights activist, becoming co-owner and editor of the anti-segregation newspaper Free Speech and Headlight. When friends in Memphis were lynched, Wells began a thorough investigation of lynchings in the U.S., publishing editorials and pamphlets with her findings and starting a nationwide anti-lynching campaign.

Read more about Ida B. Wells

Dress like a photographer

Imperial War Museum

No professional female photojournalist had access to the battlefields or front lines during World War I, according to England’s Imperial War Museums, and Christina Broom (1862–1939) was no exception.

Nevertheless, Broom — hailed as Britain’s first female photojournalist — and her colleagues took some of the most compelling photographs of the era. Broom extensively photographed the women’s rights movement in the U.K., and her photos of the homefront provide us with a uniquely feminine perspective on the toll of war.

Here, Broom poses next to a display of her photographs in a picture taken by her daughter.

Read more about British women photographers of World War I

Dress like a nurse

American Indian Magazine / Canadian War Museum / Australian War Museum / Wikimedia Commons / American Red Cross

During World War I, many medical professionals volunteered, though there is no complete record of how many served. While many tens of thousands went to war with organizations like the Red Cross, others took a somewhat less official path to service.

Take, for example, Scottish doctor Elsie Inglis (1864–1917). Dr. Inglis tried to volunteer with the War Office but was turned down because she was a woman. Rather than “go home and sit still” as instructed, Inglis founded the Scottish Women’s Hospitals and went to the Serbian front to treat the wounded. (She died of cancer one day after returning to England from the front.)

Whether through official channels or by their own device, nurses and health care assistants flocked to the fronts to do their part.

Pictured from left: Edith Anderson Monture, one of the first Native American nurses to serve (American Indian Magazine); a Canadian nurse (Canadian War Museum); Alice Ross-King, an Australian nurse who served in both world wars (Australian War Memorial); Puerto Rican nurse and activist Rosa A. González (Wikimedia Commons); nine African-American Red Cross nurses, including Aileen Cole, far left (American Red Cross).

Read more about notable women of World War I

Dress like an ambulance driver

Getty Images / Imperial War Museum / Lt. J.W. Brooke

Young women eager to serve during World War I found their options limited. One way women could participate at or near the front: drive an ambulance. It was dangerous work, but countless women from the U.K., U.S., Canada, Australia, and their allies volunteered.

Pictured are five ambulance drivers of the First Aid Nursing Yeomanry (FANY) at Calais, France, January 1917.

Read more about women in World War I

Dress like a lab tech

Imperial War Museum

In 1917, women working in science and industry was not a new phenomenon. Marie Curie, for example, had won the Nobel Prize in 1903. But larger numbers of women were needed, both to fill roles previously occupied by men and to meet the demands of the wartime economy.

Here, women work in the laboratory of Brunner, Mond & Co., a firm that manufactured sodium bicarbonate (aka baking soda).

Read more about women war workers

Dress like a front-line volunteer

Imperial War Museum

Realizing that many soldiers were dying because they didn’t receive care soon enough, British nursing volunteers Elsie Knocker (1884–1978) and Mairi Chisholm (1896–1981) left their unit and moved themselves to the front lines.

They set up their first-aid post in the fall of 1914, just meters from the Belgian front. For their tireless efforts at the front, they became known as the Angels of Pervyse.

Read more about the Angels of Pervyse

Dress like a football player

Imperial War Museum

Thanks to the movie “A League of Their Own,” many are familiar with the surge in professional female athletes during World War II. But women’s contributions to sports didn’t begin in the 1940s.

During World War I, women’s football became hugely popular in the U.K., with many factories outfitting their own teams.

Read more about women’s football

Dress like a tennis champion

Wikimedia Commons / Instagram

1917 was an excellent year for Lucy Diggs Slowe (1885–1937). She won the American Tennis Association’s first national championship, becoming the first black woman to win a national tennis tournament.

Five years later, she would be appointed the first dean of women at Howard University, her alma mater.

And while still a student at Howard in 1908, she co-founded the first black sorority, Alpha Kappa Alpha.

Read more about Lucy Diggs Slowe

Dress like an artist

Wikimedia Commons / Alfred Stieglitz

One hundred years ago, iconic artist Georgia O’Keeffe (1887–1986) was at the beginning of a long and prolific career.

In 1916, the photographer Alfred Stieglitz (her future husband) hosted an exhibit of her work. And in 1918, O’Keeffe moved to New York, where she would develop her own unique take on modernism, both in her art and personal style.

Read more about Georgia O’Keeffe

Dress like a designer


While O’Keeffe was perfecting her art, some American artists were finding creative ways to contribute to the war effort.

Case in point: the artists of the Women’s Reserve Camouflage Corps. These women developed innovative camouflaging techniques — and tested them in public parks by disguising themselves as rocks and bushes.

Read more about the Women’s Reserve Camouflage Corps

Dress like a lumberjack (or jane) 

Getty Images / Topical Press Agency / R. Humphrey

For British women who wanted to work outside, but not necessarily disguised as rocks, there was the Women’s Forestry Corps. Part of the Women’s Land Army, the women of the WFC helped fell trees and keep the timber industry going.

Here, workers sit on a pile of logs enjoying their sandwiches.

Read more about women in World War I

Dress like an aviator

Pilot Ruth Law
Getty Images

Ruth Law (1887–1970) bought her first airplane in 1912 — from none other than Orville Wright. Four years later, she broke the cross-country air speed record, thrilling America and even President Woodrow Wilson, who attended an event in her honor.

When the U.S. entered World War I in 1917, Law wanted to serve as a pilot and petitioned the president (unsuccessfully) to be allowed to join the Signal Corps. She told the Christian Science Monitor:

“Women have qualities which make them good aviators, too. They are courageous, self-possessed, clear-visioned, quick to decide in an emergency, and usually they make wise decisions.”

Read more about early women aviators

Dress like a factory worker

Wikimedia Commons

By World War I, working-class women in Europe and North America were well-acquainted with factory work. Women — notably those working in the textile industry — had helped fuel the Industrial Revolution, after all.

But with men away at war, women were recruited to fill factory jobs previously unavailable to them. As shipbuilders, munitions makers, and the like, millions of women learned new skills and proved they could handle the physical and mental demands of these jobs.

Read more about working women of World War I

Dress like a machine operator

Getty Images / Imperial War Museum

With sugar and other imported goods in short supply during the war, production of substitute sweeteners like glucose syrup became more important. While the women of the Land Army addressed agricultural needs, others worked in food processing and production.

In this photo, a girl operates the filter press at a glucose syrup factory in Lancashire, England, U.K.

Read more about women factory workers

Dress like a welder

Getty Images / FPG

Long before Rosie the Riveter in the 1940s, women mastered the technical skills needed for manufacturing of all sorts.

Here, a woman welds at a munitions factory during World War I.

Read more about women’s work in World War I

Dress like a coal and gas worker

Getty Images / Imperial War Museum / G.P. Lewis

In 1917, coal and coal gas were primary sources of heat and electricity, and as wartime manufacturing increased, so did the need for energy production. While women had long been employed in the coal industry, the exodus of men going to war meant more women were needed, especially for the more physical and dangerous jobs that typically had been done by men.

Coal was king, and someone had to shovel it.

In this photo, a London gas company worker, her face blackened with grime, holds a rake as she stands in front of the furnaces.

Read more about women in World War I

Dress like a laborer

Getty Images / SSPL / Royal Photographic Society

Before World War I, nearly 2 million women in the U.K. were employed as domestic servants, more than in any other profession.

During the war, many women left their domestic jobs as other opportunities became open to them. Others were let go as households reduced staff and had to seek out other forms of work.

For many working women, “war work was a revelation,” writes author Judith Orr. Women could earn twice what they did as domestics, and many had a newfound sense of independence.

Read more about women in World War I

Dress like a revolutionary

National Library of Ireland

The battles in France and Belgium weren’t the only ones taking place during the World War I era. Around the world, revolution was in the air.

In Mexico, President Porfirio Diaz was overthrown in 1910 after 35 years in power, plunging the country into a decadelong civil war. In Russia, a 1917 strike by women began the revolution that overthrew the czar and set the stage for the rise of the Soviet Union. And in Ireland, the Easter Rising of 1916 provided the spark that would lead a few years later to war and the creation of the independent Irish state. In all these places, women were prepared to do whatever was necessary for the cause.

Constance Markievicz (1868–1927) was one of those women. She fought in the Easter Rising, helping to fend off the British for six days before being arrested (one of many women arrested but the only one placed in solitary confinement). On trial for her part in the rebellion, Markievicz told the court:

“I went out to fight for Ireland’s freedom, and it does not matter what happens to me. I did what I thought was right, and I stand by it.”

In 1918, she would become the first woman elected to the British House of Commons (though along with other Irish republicans, she refused to take her seat) before becoming one of the first women in the world to hold a cabinet position as Minister of Labour of the new Irish Republic.

Read more about Constance Markievicz

Dress like a lady at tea time

Getty Images / Topical Press Agency / A. R. Coster

The diversity of women’s roles 100 years ago is reflected in the variety of clothing they wore to work.

Here workers at the Gas Light and Coke Co. at Bromley By Bow, London, serve tea to other employees (on top of a gasometer). Some wear pants, others dresses. All of the workers are women.

Read more about women in World War I

Dress like a suffragette

Japan Society

White blouse and black skirt or white dress, wide-brimmed hat, perhaps a sash — these are the garments typically associated with suffragettes.

When prominent actor Komako Kimura (1887–1980) marched for the vote in New York in 1917, she showed that there was no one single way to look like an advocate for women’s rights.

Read more about Komako Kimura

Dress like a political prisoner

Getty Images / Universal History Archive

A campaigner for women’s rights both in her native U.S. and in the U.K., National Woman’s Party co-founder Lucy Burns (1879–1966) was arrested multiple times for protesting.

One arrest, in particular, stands out: In 1917, Burns was arrested and sent to Occoquan Workhouse in Virginia (not for the first time). On Nov. 14, 1917, at Occoquan, Burns and other members of the NWP were beaten and tortured, then refused medical attention, during what would come to be known as the Night of Terror. Realizing Burns’ spirit would not be broken easily, the guards handcuffed her to her cell door, hands over head, and left her for the remainder of the night.

Read more about Lucy Burns

Dress like a politician

Getty Images / Bettmann

In 1917, Jeannette Rankin (1880–1973) made history when she began work as the first woman elected to U.S. Congress.

Soon after taking office, the women’s rights advocate and peace activist made history once again as the only member of Congress to vote against U.S. entry into World War I (an honor she would repeat at the onset of World War II).

Said Rankin upon her election:

“I may be the first woman member of Congress, but I won’t be the last.”

Read more about Jeannette Rankin

Dress like a philosopher

Public Domain

Susanne Langer (1895–1985) is one of only a handful of women to rise to prominence in the field of philosophy.

Her 1942 book, ”Philosophy in a New Key; A Study in the Symbolism of Reason, Rite, and Art,” would challenge commonly held beliefs about art and aesthetics. But in 1917, she was still a student. Langer would graduate from Radcliffe in 1920 before going on to earn a doctorate in philosophy at Harvard.

View Susanne Langer’s obituary

Dress like an educator

Getty Images / Bettmann

Physician and educator Maria Montessori (1870–1952) was one of the most influential thinkers of the 20th century.

In 1907, she opened her first school for children in a poor, working-class community in Italy. Her method — with its child-centered focus — soon gained popularity across Europe and in America.

More than 100 years after her pioneering work with children, her philosophy and pedagogy continue to have an enormous impact on education.

Read more about Maria Montessori

Dress like a mother

Getty Images / Chicago History Museum

Women in 1917 faced many of the same demands and constraints as the women of today.

They cleaned and cooked and cared for their children; they arranged child care, commuted to work, and labored for less money than what men were paid; they returned home to cook and clean and care for their children some more. Many did all of this as single parents whose husbands were away at war or deceased.

Then as now, the paid and unpaid work that women did as employees, wives, and mothers consumed much, if not all, of their time.

Read more about women in 1917

Dress like a voter

Wikimedia Commons

In 1912, American citizen Tye Leung Schulze (1887–1972) made history through the simplest of actions: She voted.

In doing so, she became not only the first Chinese-American woman to vote but also “the first Chinese woman in the history of the world to exercise the electoral franchise,” according to Wikipedia.

Read more about Tye Leung Schulze

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